Friday, June 27, 2008

For The Love Of Chair

The above council chair belongs to the Reverend Ricky Burgess. It remained empty through much of last Wednesday’s council session because Councilman Burgess was threatened with forfeiture of office if he spoke or participated in any way regarding the business at hand on that day. The same threat was leveled at three other councilmen, but only Ricky took it seriously enough to forego his legislative obligations and abandon his chair. The other three, Council President Doug Shields, Councilmen Bill Peduto and Bruce Kraus, decided they would not be bullied. They thought too much of their elected office, their own council chairs and the institutions those chairs represented. You might call this a very deep-seated Love of Chair.

Who threatened the good reverend? Was it the Mob? Did an angry group of atheists finally take umbrage to the pastor’s penchant for prayer during televised council sessions? Did one of the five known city Republicans attempt to wrest a single council seat for their near-extinct party? A party which has not held one elected city office in almost 100 years?

Nope, oddly enough the intimidation came from the city’s own law department!

You see, council got wind of a blatantly corrupt but kinda standard scheme involving the mayor, a few of the mayor’s top administrators, illegal signage permits for Lamar Advertising who regularly gave the mayor hefty “in-kind” campaign contributions, additional illegal sign permits to another advertising company who gave substantial cash contributions to the mayor, gifts of undisclosed amounts between various parties, awarding of no-bid contracts that turned out to be sweetheart deals at taxpayer expense, diversion of city decision-making powers to non-city officials who would help the scheme progress unimpeded. You know …. The normal kind of second-class corruption that regularly occurs in cities of the second class in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Well, council at first foolishly sought legal advice from City Solicitor George Specter on how best to null and void the latest illegal sign permit. This is the same George Specter who on March 20, 2008 told the legislative body that it was in fact illegal for them to legislate. But even after receiving and enduring that bizarre piece of legal advice along with scores of others equally as wacked out, many on council still felt obliged to involve their solicitor, impotent as he was. In the end, Specter would not or could not and ultimately did not provide council with any viable legal advice in this pressing matter. And with a time-sensitive clock running out, four councilmen including the Reverend Burgess, filed a last-minute appeal with the Zoning Board of Adjustments to try to stop Lamar Advertising in their tracks. The Four hired outside legal counsel Hugh McGough to represent them as Specter was useless. The Four then delivered McGough’s bill to the full council body for payment.

Dum-ta-dum-tum-taaaa! (Drum roll ‘cause the shit’s about to hit the fan)

For a legal department who took nine weeks to render an opinion as to whether or not a sign was in fact a sign, Specter and his minions blasted out an ominous and threatening opinion to The Four in a matter of days. The opinion stated that since four out of nine did not constitute a majority of council, their zoning appeal and accompanying attorney fees were of a private (not public) nature. Never mind that a fifth councilman, Patrick Dowd, did also file. Unfortunatly for The Four, Patrick filed as a private citizen, not as a councilman. And never mind that a sixth councilwoman, Darlene Harris, was advised of and gave her consent for the hiring of McGough even though she could not be physically present at the zoning counter to join in on the appeal. This situation provides an interesting glimpse into the world of governmental arithmetic where four plus one plus another one still only equals four.

Specter reasoned since the zoning appeal action was of a private nature, the accompanying legal bill would also be private. And since payment by the city of a private bill would constitute a personal gain, this personal gain would signal a conflict of interest. Specter warned that if any of The Four so much as spoke of the attorney bill, much less voted on its payment, they would be knee-deep in conflict of interest complicity. The penalty for such an illegal act? They all “SHALL immediately forfeit their office.”

Wow. Could this be true? Well …… not quite. Not quite that cut-and-dry. Specter immediately started his back-peddling upon grilling by Council President Doug Shields.

Shields: “Mr Specter, in your opinion it was alluded to or construed as generally by the members of the council and the public that somehow or another there was a self-executing removal and forfeiture of office at issue here. Is that so? Would you like to clarify that please?"

Specter: “Yes I would. We did note in our opinion that [forfeiture of office is] not self-executing and we did refer to the fact that additional processes would have been necessary. And that there is a constitutionally mandated impeachment process which would come into play and we did say that in our opinion. So it’s not as though you automatically are removed.”

Shields: “Where in your opinion did you address that?”

Specter: “On page 12 …. It reads 'not withstanding the clear mandate of the charter and the statute, it may be that the Pennsylvania constitution may require some process other than the self-executing nature of this penalty.'”

Shields: “May require. It is ‘may’ or ‘does’ it require?”

Specter: “It ‘does’ require.”

Shields: “Well, I think the [incorrect] inference, George, has caused a considerable amount of consternation. I don’t know of anything where there is a self-executing forfeiture provision anywhere, so why was that brought up? Why doesn’t the drafter of this [opinion], Ms. DeSimone, explain exactly what goes on in a forfeiture of office or removal of office?”

Specter: “I take full responsibility for this opinion. It’s not unusual for an opinion to be co-drafted by more than one member of the solicitor’s staff. But in the final analysis, I signed it, and I take full responsibility for it. To the extent that the word ‘may’ caused confusion or worse yet, consternation and fear, I apologize for that.”

Shields: “I’ve got an empty seat here. And the reason why I have an empty seat is Councilman Burgess’ interpretation of [your] opinion is that he can’t sit here but to risk his office. I’ll risk mine. That’s my choice. But what I’m really concerned about is the fact that the opinion is unclear and ambiguous on one of the most essential parts of the opinion. And the message to the council was ‘you vote or discuss this, the interpretation is that you’ll lose your seat. Automatically.’”

“So this is a very serious matter to me as president of this council. I find it very very troubling that we have a document here that is so ambiguous and so unclear. The state ‘may’ do something. The state ‘has to do something’. The state ‘shall’ do something. All would mean a whole different kettle of fish. I have an empty chair as a result of that. And you have, by the rendering of this opinion, caused a bit of a crisis here.”

Specter: ‘To the extent that that word ‘may’, and I now see that it could cause confusion, consternation, and at least in one case fear of removal of office …..To that extent I apologize for the use of that word."

Specter renders a legal opinion that says impeachment ‘may’ take the entire state legislature when in fact he knows it ‘does’?? Instead he alludes and threatens that the moment they open their mouth, if they open their mouths, they’ll be bounced from their council seat?? Right then and there?? And this is just a little, itty-bitty misspeak to which he apologizes??

No ….. This is the whole damn crux of this ugly ordeal. It is just the latest in a chilling pattern by the present administration to threaten, browbeat, silence and/or eliminate another branch of government which has proved to be too much of an inconvenient check-and-balance for them.

Kraus: “I just want to reiterate that the picture of this empty chair at this table and the precedent that we are sending here today. We had a conversation in your office, Mr Specter, and I told you this is not about the money [for the legal fees]. This can be paid. This is about the message that we set. We were the minority, having gone out to fight something that was blatantly illegal. It was found to be blatantly illegal. We did do the right thing. Bodies piled up in that hallway, people were fired and permits were pulled because we stood up and we did what was in the best interest of the people of the City of Pittsburgh. And because we did that, and because we are now voting to have our legal bills paid, Reverend Burgess is not in this seat because of the fear that was set. The message of fear that…. If you DO stand up and you DO try to do the right thing, not only will we hang the legal bills around YOUR NECK for having done it, but we may very well remove you from office for having stood up for the right thing. (Bolded caps mean raised voice) For what was PROVEN to be BLATANTLY AND GROSSLY ILLEGAL BEHAVIOR that WE FOUGHT. If you want to send a message to the people of the City of Pittsburgh that their elected officials are actually ETHICAL and STAND UP for what is right, that we will not only work toward but FIGHT to HANG THOSE LEGAL BILLS AROUND YOUR NECK and remove you from office. YOU send that message today. I challenge this body to send that message today.”

Peduto: “We saw something that was wrong. Something that was illegal activity that was going on and we blew the whistle on it. Throughout the entire process of doing so, we have been attacked, threatened and silenced: Questionable legal memos threatening removal of office just for speaking. Denial of expert legal advice in offering alternative viewpoints. Silencing of minority opinion."

"It’s not about this [legal] bill. It’s not even about the four members of council that decided to stand up. It’s about what effect it will have anytime in the future that a councilmember decides to try and stop something that is illegal and has a conflict that is perceived or real with the solicitor’s department."

"I think if there is any visual symbol of today that should be remembered for all of council it should be that empty seat for Reverend Burgess. And being threatened enough to not be able to carry out your job. I think that empty seat represents an injustice to democracy, to due process, and to the ability of those who believe that they should be able to fight the powerful. And to be able to do so with the tools that make them equal.”

Well, back on March 20th, Specter tried to tell council that they had no business trying to do all of that high-falutin’ legislation stuff. He tried to warn them back then but they just wouldn’t listen.

Ricky Burgess finally paid attention, vacated his seat and shut his mouth. One loudmouth, troublemaker downed by Specter and only three maybe four more to go. Amazing.

Peduto closed with some stern words about a lawsuit. I say it’s about time. Top of the list of discovery items? Pat Ford’s super-duper, super-secret, triple-locked briefcase. All of this done, of course, because of a very deep-seated Love of Chair.


Anonymous said...

The people of district nine will remember this............we will not forget..... we will remember!

Char said...

I hope I made my feelings clear. I'm not disappointed that Ricky didn't risk his seat whereas the other 3 did. As a matter of fact .... I'm glad he did. I'm glad we have an event which did happen. And we have irrefutable proof in the form of television tape and photographic record that the City Solicitor of Pittsburgh issued such an irresponsible and erroneous legal opinion so as to threaten and bully an elected official into silence. In fact, the whole thing is so overtly gross, one can hardly envision it was done for any other purpose at all.

District 9 will not forget? Well maybe District 9 needs to remind the other 8 that intimidating Burgess was an intimidation to them as well.

'01 O'Connor Supporter said...

I've heard four names thrown around as candidates for Mayor. I think it's vital to the city that Luke be defeated, so here's a fair analysis of the four candidates:

Chelsa Wagner
Probably the best candidate of the four. Could raise $350,000 to $700,000. Needs less money because of name recognition. Backed Obama--smart politics. She's from the South Side, and would do very well there. That is critical, as the only way Luke is going to lose is if he runs into somebody who can run even with him in the black community, win overwhelmingly in the East End, and carry the South Side. Lawrenceville is going to vote for Luke no matter what (the reason why Pat Dowd is getting no where). The machine would be happy with her, as they know she'd be responsible and look out for their interests; the truth is that many of them are getting sick of the Ferlo-Onorato-Zober axis pulling Luke's strings. The fact that she's a woman and a young woman at that helps. The Grandmas who all voted for Luke because he looked like their grandson will instead vote for Chelsa because she looks like their granddaughter, and anyway that Mayor is kind of a "doofus." Yarone, because he is a shameless smear artist, would probably start all sorts of crappy rumors about her. That would inevitably backfire due to the gender dynamic in the race. Gender also helps her go at Luke on the worst faux paus of his administration--the golfing over attending a meeting with women's groups. Chelsa has a fine grasp of the issues, she's a lawyer and wouldn't allow her administration to put out bogus legal opinions. She's ethical and refuses to use a government car for official business. Chelsa is a great potential candidate.

Doug Shields
Good guy, I like him very much and he'd be a good Mayor. But the truth is he was never all that beloved within the machine. Sure some of us have major scores to settle with Luke, and Ferlo, so if Doug is our only shot, many will back Doug. Doug will be tolerated by the crowd out in the East End which this blog plays to. While anything is possible, I suspect Doug has a better chance of becoming Mayor by ascension after Luke wraps the city's SUV around a tree after taking in two six packs of beer at the next Tony Keith concert (we can all agree that it is only a matter of time before that happens).

Bill Isler
The worst candidate of the bunch in my opinion. Too tainted by the school board. The entire election would become a referendum on the school board's policies. He'd be weak in areas anybody would have to be strong in to beat Luke. I hope he runs for something else.

Franco Harris
This one is interesting. He could probably get elected to Council. Mayor? I think that it'd be difficult for him to beat Luke. He's a good guy and would be a good Mayor. But coming into high elective office with no previous office held is always a tough sell. Then again, when you're an athlete, running against the drunken fan is pretty easy, so he might still be able to win. Reading between the lines, his name being bandied about tells me that a certain football team is none-too-happy with a certain Mayor. He could probably raise the most money, as if he gets in and the Rooneys are serious about it, they'll spare no expense. He fits the profile of an outside businessperson who can bring lots of money to the campaign, which some say is needed to defeat Luke. I maintain Chelsa and the hybrid model of piecing together East End activists with part of the machine is a better model.

Overall, I think Chelsa Wagner is the best candidate for Mayor. I hope she chooses to run. And, if she does choose to run, I hope the other aspirants for the office will clear the field for her and put the good of the city above their own personal ambition. It's vital that we defeat Luke in 2009. Pittsburgh can't stand four more years of this guy. It's time for a young, responsible, and intelligent person in the Mayor's Office...

Anonymous said...

Chelsa is run by the Wagner machine that has been slow to idle for many years because it was defeated by honest people. Bad Choice.

Best choice not mentioned is Mike Lamb. hope he runs - will cut nicely into the wagner machine, carry the east end, and cut into the north side

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